Wagner Women’s Water Polo Captures 6th Straight MAAC Title With 8-4 Win over Marist

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Victory is so sweet—and wet! Wagner women celebrate program's 6th-straight MAAC title. Photo Courtesy: MAAC

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY. In a raucous McCann Natatorium, with masses of fans wearing the distinctive red and white of Marist, a stifling defensive effort by Wagner women’s water polo squad silenced the crowd, drowning the host team 8-4 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) final on Sunday.

wagnerIn seizing their conference’s crown for a sixth consecutive time—all at perennial opponent Marist’s expense—the Seahawks will again advance to the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament, where they will face UC San Diego in a play-in game, Wagner’s third straight post-season meeting with the Tritons. Yet another decisive title victory, following an another (almost) undefeated conference season raises the question: are the Seahawks simply too good for the MAAC?

[MAAC Women’s Water Polo Round-Up: Wagner Win Streak Ends Not with a Bang but a Whimper]

They certainly were on Sunday. Defense made the difference, as Marist was held to a mere 16 shots and went 17 minutes from the first to the third periods without scoring. By then, the game was decided.

“We’ve talked all year long about defense being what’s going to drive this team,” Chris Radmonovich, Wagner Head Coach, said after the match. “[W]e were able to have a great game defensively, where there weren’t a lot of mistakes.”

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Wagner’s Kristy Donkin. Photo Courtesy: MAAC

Leading the way for Wagner was red-shirt junior Kristy Donkin, who scored four goals with precision strikes that Marist goalie Carsen Horvatich simply couldn’t defend. Donkin, named MVP for the tournament, was matched on defense by Daisy Nankervis, who contributed three steals along with a goal and an assist.

Marist, which got single goals from Justine Castro, Grace Doerfler, Anais Mathes and Ariana Singer, was likewise proficient on defense, holding Wagner scoreless on ten chances with the man advantage. Otherwise, as Marist Head Coach Chris Vidale pointed out, the difference might have been much greater.

“Wagner didn’t make a 6 on 5, they were 0-10,” said a dejected Vidale, who has now lost three title matches to Wagner. “If they hit those, then this game is a lot uglier than it could have been.”

Dominant defensive performance follows an offensive explosion

Wagner came into the finals off of one of the most dominant offensive performances in MAAC postseason history. A 25-2 drubbing of fourth-seeded Virginia Military Institute (VMI) included a run of 23 unanswered goals, and gaudy offensive numbers: six goals by Malia Josephson, five goals and two assists from Jacqui Sjogren, and an even three goals on three shots by Nankervis, to go along with three assists.

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Wagner’s Daisy Nankervis. Photo Courtesy: MAAC

The game on Sunday was an entirely different affair. Sofia Diaz-Alvarez, the 2019 MAAC Rookie of the Year, padded her season total of 94 steals with another two against Marist. A member of the Spanish Junior National Team, Diaz-Alvarez is a flawless technician who can score (a team-high 108 goals) and is committed to the pressing defense that Radmonovich demands of his players.

“Defense is the most important part in water polo,” Diaz Alvarez proclaimed. “If you defend well, the game is good…and you win.”

Pressure defense and exacting preparation are what Radmonovich and his staff, including assistants Bailey Hardy and Ciaran Wolohan, stress. It wasn’t as if Marist hadn’t seen this before; the two teams had played twice before the MAAC final; a narrow 11-10 Wagner win last March at the LMU Invitational in Los Angeles, and a 16-12 Seahawk win earlier this month. But those two games, close throughout, did not indicate just how defensively dominant Wagner can be.

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Standing room only – plus ESPN3 for MAAC final. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Marist jumped to an early 1-0 lead thanks to a Doerfler score two minutes into the match, and the pro-Red Fox crowd was jubilant, perhaps fooling themselves that a history-making upset was possible. It was wishful thinking. Donkin immediately equalized on Wagner’s next possession, as she buried a shot in the upper left-hand corner of the Marist cage. Beating goalie Horvatich to the corners was all by design, and Donkin executed to perfection.

“We spoke about it at training the past two weeks, that [Horvatich] likes to jam the short corner when they play the four/five zone,” Donkin revealed after the match. “We identified that early and started shooting cross-cage on her—and were lucky to get some goals in from that.”

Turns out, luck had nothing to do with it.

“We have a pretty good idea of where we can be successful, and we spend time [practicing] against the defenses we anticipate seeing,” Radmonovich said, perfectly summing up the Seahawk advantage; preparation and playing to a strength, in this case defense.

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Philippa Nash’s family believes in their Seahawks! Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

But these birds, who led the conference with 607 goals, can also score. At the 4:21 mark Jacqui Sjogren scored to put her team ahead for good. Diaz-Alvarez scored 30 seconds into the second period, followed by Donkin a minute later and again at the 3:20 mark. It was 5-1 at the half, and Marist could barely move the ball around, let alone challenge Wagner goalie Katherine Campbell.

After intermission, on Marist’s first possession, Mathes clanked a shot off the Wagner goal post. Then Donkin beat Horvatich again in the upper corner, completing her natural hat trick. Halfway through the period, Mathes solved Campbell, but the extended gap between goals was fatal to Marist’s hopes. Nankervis scored with a minute remaining in the third to again put Wagner up by five. By then the Red Foxes were so desperate for offense that they looked to trap Campbell in the corner, to no avail.

In the fourth, Vidale tried leaving players in the offensive zone in hopes of getting a quick score, but nothing worked. The Seahawks were too strong, their press too effective, and the result was as thorough a victory as possible, even if the score didn’t reflect it.

Break up the Seahawks…or the MAAC! 

Tom Hyham, La Salle’s men’s and women’s coach whose daughter Marina is a back-up goalie for Marist, was watching from the stands, and observed the obvious: “If you can stop a team from scoring—you’re going to win.”

Asked to assess the team that he hopes to someday overcome, La Salle’s Hyham pointed to the Seahawk coach as their critical component.

“The main thing that makes Wagner what they are is Chris Radmonovich—he goes after every single game like it’s a championship.” Hyham said. “The second thing is physicality; Wagner will beat a team on physicality alone.”

Wagner is not alone in conference dominance. Their opponent in next week’s NCAA play-in match, the UC San Diego Tritons, had a lengthy conference win streak ended recently, with a remarkable 45 straight Western Water Polo Association victories—including 17 straight post-season wins that produced seven consecutive WWPA crowns. UCSD will not take another WWPA match because they are moving to The Big West conference, a result of migrating from Division II status to DI. The move will eliminate what has been an easy path for the Tritons to the national championship tournament. Three Big West teams—Hawai’i (#5), UC Irvine (#7) and UC Davis (#9) are in the CWPA top ten.

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Luckily, you can’t see tears in the water. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Another comparable situation is Michigan in the relatively weak Collegiate Water Polo Association. The Wolverines are the country’s sixth-ranked program, and Head Coach Marcelo Leonardi is passionate about his team taking on one of the country’s toughest schedules. But in conference play against lesser opponents over the past four years, and especially at tournament time when they need to be sharpening their skills, Michigan has lost exactly one match, to Princeton last April. As a result, the Wolverines have won the past four CWPA titles and advanced to NCAAs each year, but have struggled against the nation’s best, including USC (#1), Stanford (#2), UCLA (#4) and Cal (#4).

As to Wagner, the program clearly has outgrown the MAAC. Even though Radmonovich’s squad will lose two players with significant impact—Donkin and Erika Hardy, the 2019 MAAC Offensive Player of the Year—they will likely continue to dominate conference foes. But expecting the Seahawks to fly away from an automatic NCAA berth seems unlikely at the moment. And until they do, the MAAC will continue to be a one-horse race, with little hope of change.

For now, Radmonovich and his players will revel in their success, and prepare for more competition next week.

“This is the sixth year in a row we’ve been in that play-in game,” the Wagner coach said. “If it’s a match-up same as last year with UC San Diego, they’re a phenomenal team and one of the best games I get to be a part of all year.”